Boeing Starliner in Context: Apollo, Shuttles, and American History

Screenshots from NASA's coverage of 'Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test Launch'. (May 6,2024) via YouTubeFor some reason, I expected Monday’s Starliner launch to go ahead on schedule.

It didn’t, which is probably a good thing. But the delay, and staying up far later than I usually do, waiting for a news conference that I slept through anyway —

The long and the short of it is that, instead of focusing on the Starliner spacecraft this week, I decided to start talking about Boeing’s reputation, SpaceX, the shift to commercial space travel and exploration; and see where that led me.

As usual, I’ve made a list of links to this week’s headings: so feel free to skip ahead to whatever looks most interesting. Or go get a cup of coffee, take a walk, whatever. This post should still be around when you get back.

SpaceX Dragon, Working Since 2010; Boeing Starliner, …

SpaceX Demo-2 supply run to the ISS: inside the Dragon spacecraft. (2020) via NASA TV and YouTube, used w/o permission.
Inside the Crew Dragon: SpaceX Demo-2. (2020)

A few decades back, NASA began edging toward giving development and service contracts with defined limits.

Some of these contracts involved the Commercial Crew Program (CCP). The idea, in part, was that a company would develop and operate (partly) reusable spacecraft for the surface to low Earth orbit passenger run.

That brings me to the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap). NASA wanted an operator for the Earth-ISS passenger run.

Since Boeing had developed the Space Shuttle and worked on the International Space Station (ISS), they’d obviously get the job. They had the engineers, the experience, and the reputation as a top-rate aerospace firm.

In 2014, Boeing got almost two-thirds of the CCtCap’s budget: $4,200,000,000.

The remainder went to some startup called SpaceX. They’d already been handling cargo runs to low Earth orbit.

From 2010 to 2020, the SpaceX Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft flew 23 missions.

Dragon 2 has a more complicated story. So far, Cargo Dragon has had nine missions to the ISS, with six more planned. Crew Dragon’s test flights ended in August of 2020.

Since then, Crew Dragon 2 has flown 10 missions for a mix of government and private customers: 11, counting the one that’s still docked at the ISS.

Meanwhile, Boeing’s Starliner has made two uncrewed orbital test flights. They weren’t entirely flawless, but the Starliner came back intact both times.1

Third Starliner Orbital Test Flight, the First With Astronauts

Screenshots from NASA's coverage of 'Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test Launch'. (May 6,2024) via YouTube
Screenshots from “NASA’s Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test Launch”, NASA, YouTube. (May 6, 2024)

Monday’s planned Boeing/NASA Starliner test flight got rescheduled: tentatively for Friday, May 10, then — I’ll get to that.

The problem, I gather, was a noisy oxygen relief valve on the launch vehicle’s second stage: the thing was chattering/buzzing/fluttering at about 40 cycles per second.

“… ‘What you would typically do is activate [a] solenoid that forces the valve closed, cycling the valve, if you will … and it almost always stops,’ said Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance. ‘Once we had the crew off, we cycled the valve, and it stopped buzzing.

“‘If this were a satellite (launch), that is our standard procedure, and the satellite would already be in orbit. But that changes the state of the fueled Centaur, and we don’t do that when people are present. And so our flight rules called for us to scrub and to take the crew off before we cycled that valve.’

“Bruno said the valve, used to maintain the proper pressure inside the Centaur stage’s liquid oxygen tank, was qualified for 200,000 open-and-close cycles….”
(“Booster valve glitch derails first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft“, William Harwood, CBS News (May 7, 2024))

Since the engineers didn’t have a counter wired to that valve, they went over accelerometer data from the second stage to see how many times it cycled.

If the valve had been going through the full open-close cycle 40 times a second, then it’d be close to its 200,000-cycle safe limit.

On the other hand, if the valve was still comfortably inside its cycle limits, the Starliner could have taken off on Friday.

That was the situation early Tuesday morning. Later that day, someone with NASA said that the Boeing Starliner will take off “no earlier than 6:16 p.m. EDT Friday, May 17” .The Atlas V has been hauled back to the hanger for repairs.2

I’m glad the folks in charge decided that caution makes sense.

“Ad Astra Per Aspera”: “To the Stars Through Difficulties”

Unknown photographer's image: Otto Lilienthal, one of his gliding experiments. (1894) Library of Congress via Wikipedia, posted by Holly Cheng, used w/o permission.
One of Otto Lilienthal’s gliding experiments. (1894)

Since I’m talking about folks working toward a goal, this quote seemed appropriate:

“We are getting closer to this goal. When we will reach it, I do not know.”
(Otto Lilienthal, Letter to Moritz von Egidy (c. January 1894) Wikiquote)

That Wikiquote entry included a link to “Original German text online“. I learned that Otto Lilienthal wasn’t just talking about heavier-than-air flight.

Here’s the gist of what he wrote, along with context; first in German and then English.

“…Mit Begeisterung habe ich oft Ihren Worten gelauscht, in denen Sie die Grenzen nicht als Trennung, sondern als die Verbindung der Länder bezeichneten….

“…Der freie, unbeschränkte Flug des Menschen, für dessen Verwirklichung jetzt zahlreiche Techniker in allen Kulturstaaten ihr Bestes einsetzen, kann hierin Wandel schaffen und würde von tief einschneidender Wirkung auf alle unsere Zustände sein.

“…und das zwingende Bedürfnis, die Streitigkeiten der Nationen auf andere Weise zu schlichten als den blutigen Kämpfen um die imaginär gewordenen Grenzen, würde uns den ewigen Frieden verschaffen.

Wir nähern uns diesem Ziele. Wann wir es ganz erreichen, weiß ich nicht. Das Schärflein, was ich hierzu beigetragen habe, finden Sie in den Anlagen. Ich werde froh sein, wenn ich einen kleinen realen Beitrag liefern kann zu den hohen und idealen Kulturaufgaben, welche Sie verfolgen.

“Ihr ergebener, Otto Lilienthal”
(Otto Lilienthal’s letter to Moritz von Egidy in Berlin (ca. 1894))
[emphasis mine]

Lilienthal’s Letter, a Lunar Plaque, and a Work in Progress

NASA photo: plaque on Apollo 11's Lunar Module Eagle descent stage; bearing signatures of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. 'Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind' (text in all caps) (1969)Bear with me. This ties in with Lilienthal’s “ewigen Frieden”, “eternal peace”.

A plaque on the Apollo 11 lander reads “…We came in peace for all mankind”.

More than a half-century later, world peace is prominent by its absence. But I think it’s still a good idea. And a worthy goal.

Now, back to Otto Lilienthal’s interest in heavier-than-air flight.

“…I have often listened with enthusiasm to your words in which you described borders not as a separation but as a connection between countries….

“…The free, unrestricted flight of man, for the realization of which numerous technicians in all civilized countries are now doing their best, can bring about change in this regard and would have a profound effect on all our conditions.

“…and the compelling need to settle the disputes of nations in a way other than the bloody battles over the imaginary borders would bring us eternal peace.

We are approaching this goal. I do not know when we will fully achieve it. The small contribution I have made to this can be found in the appendices. I will be happy if I can make a small, real contribution to the high and ideal cultural tasks that you are pursuing.

“Yours sincerely, Otto Lilienthal”
Otto Lilienthal’s letter to Moritz von Egidy in Berlin (ca. 1894)
Trans. by Google Translate [emphasis mine]

Achieving world peace through flying machines didn’t happen. Or hasn’t happened yet, at any rate.

In 1903, the Wright brothers flew a controllable powered heavier-than-air device 120 feet.

By the end of 1914, P. E. Fansler and Thomas W. Benoist — don’t bother remembering those names, there won’t be a test — had established the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line as the world’s first commercial passenger airline.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, an assassination, assumptions — and a brilliantly-planned set of interlocking treaties which would surely guarantee peace — started World War I.

Maybe, if someone had flown a powered glider in 1893, we’d have had commercial airlines in 1904, and would have been celebrating the first World Peace Day in 1914. Or maybe not.

I’m just glad nobody’s blamed WWI on the Wright brothers and commercial airlines. That I know of. Which would be crazy: but what I see in headlines — is another topic.

Finally, about Otto Lilienthal and his glider: something went wrong during his fourth test flight of August 9, 1896. His glider crashed.

About 36 hours later, despite treatment in Stölln and Berlin, he died. Simulations and testing have shown that his glider can be flown safely.3

World peace? We’re still working on that.

Apollo 1: Briefly

NASA/Kim Shiflett's photo: entrance to 'Ad Astra Per Aspera', 'to the stars through difficulties'. Memorial for Gus Grissom, Ed White II, Roger Chaffee: crew of Apollo 1. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Gus Grissom, Ed White II, Roger Chaffee: crew of Apollo 1. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

If everything had gone well, Apollo 1 would have been a low Earth orbit test of the Apollo command and service module (CSM).

The crew said the cabin’s fittings included overly much flammable nylon and Velcro.

The program manager agreed, told his staff that the combustibles should go, but didn’t personally follow up on that detail.

Can’t say that I blame him. The CSM was the most biggest and most complex crewed spacecraft to date.

And the design kept getting changed, improved. By August, 26, 1966, more than 600 engineering change orders were in process or pending.

Then, on the afternoon of January 27, 1967, during a ground test to see whether the command module would operate normally on (simulated) internal power, a fire started. Inside the cabin. In a 100% oxygen atmosphere. At full sea level pressure.

A few extremely unpleasant minutes later, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee, were dead.

The usual Congressional committee investigations happened. Engineers worked over their records and the burned-out husk of the Apollo 1 command module. They learned what went wrong, and this time around — there wasn’t another fire.

Apollo 13’s crew made it back to Earth, and that’s yet another topic.4

Remembering the Space Shuttle Fleet

NASA/Kim Shiflett's photo: entrance to 'Forever Remembered'. Memorial for the crews of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Remembering the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

First, the good news.

Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour completed their missions and ended up at the California Science Center, the Smithsonian’s display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Now the bad news.

Two of the 135 Space Shuttle missions ended in disaster.

If 1.5% of a commercial airline’s flights crashed, killing everyone aboard — even if government agencies didn’t shut them down, passengers would stay away in droves.

But the Space Shuttle program was a government operation. And, perhaps more to the point, the fleet — Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour — were the first of their kind.

Max Volier's rocket-propelled aircraft concepts. (ca. 1920s)Folks had been thinking about spaceplanes at least since Max Valier’s day.

But nobody had tried, successfully, building and flying the things. Not for regular cargo and passenger runs.5

I’m still angry about what looks like world-class lack of common sense during the hours before Challenger exploded.

But I’ve never been a bureaucrat, or an executive: or an engineer trying to educate either sort of higher-up. I’ve been customer support for educational software, and that’s almost another topic.

Ending this section with good news, we learned from both the Challenger and Columbia disasters: and, perhaps remarkably, may be applying some of that hard-won knowledge.

Reputation and Realities

NASA's photo: 'The CST-100 Starliner autonomously approaches the International Space Station during the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2....' (May 2022) NASA, via Boeing, used w/o permission
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner approaching the ISS during Orbital Flight Test-2 (May 2022)

I suspect Boeing’s Starliner and Lockheed Martin’s Orion look like scaled-up versions of the Apollo command module because folks have learned how tricky spaceplane design is.

And because, during this century’s first decade, NASA started thinking of space exploration from a commercial viewpoint.6 Or trying to. I think it’s (basically) a good idea: and something I won’t try discussing this week. Not in any detail.

I will, however, talk about why I’m not terrified about test pilots risking their lives in a Boeing vehicle.

Keeping Up With the Times: Or Not

Loren Fishman's Mallard Fillmore: 'place your bets'. (April 29, 2024)Boeing had a reputation as a top-rate aerospace firm.

So how come we’ve got jokes about which piece of the airliner falls off this time, and (some) passengers who won’t fly on a particular Boeing airliner?

Instead of diving down rabbit holes in a possibly-frustrating effort to ferret out — good grief. Metaphors, mixed nuts, election-year mania and staying up too late Monday night.

I’ll settle for sharing excerpts from recent articles, with a disclaimer or two.

First, a disclaimer. I do read the occasional Ars Technica article, but I don’t actually know much about the outfit.

They’ve got a viewpoint, like everyone else. That said, I’ve noticed no wild zeal for defending democracy against Texans, defeating the Antichrist in my country’s looming election, or other red flags.

On the other hand, I haven’t verified assertions made in this article. Or the next two. I’m just some guy living in central Minnesota, and corporate nitwittery isn’t among my favorite subjects.

So here’s part of that Ars Technica piece:

The surprise is not that Boeing lost commercial crew
but that it finished at all

“The structural inefficiency was a huge deal.”
Eric Berger, Ars Technica (May 6, 2024)

“…Boeing’s space division had never won a large fixed-price contract. Its leaders were used to operating in a cost-plus environment, in which Boeing could bill the government for all of its expenses and earn a fee. Cost overruns and delays were not the company’s problem—they were NASA’s. Now Boeing had to deliver a flyable spacecraft for a firm, fixed price.

“…So Boeing faced financial pressure from the beginning. At the same time, it was confronting major technical challenges. Building a human spacecraft is very difficult. Some of the biggest hurdles would be flight software and propulsion….

“…There was no single flight software team at Boeing. The responsibilities were spread out. A team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida handled the ground systems software, which kept Starliner healthy during ground tests and the countdown until the final minutes before liftoff. Separately, a team at Boeing’s facilities in Houston near Johnson Space Center managed the flight software for when the vehicle took off….”
[emphasis mine]

“…no single flight software team…” is an example of something that’d take considerable researching before I could say that it’s either no problem, or a reason why Boeing shouldn’t be building spacecraft. Or airliners.

On the one hand, having two teams might keep both from getting overwhelmed.

Or it might a paranoid senior executive’s way to keep them busy fighting each other. And presumably unaware that the executive can’t type, let alone code.

Much more likely, the situation would be more complex.

“…All of Boeing’s struggles with Starliner played out against a much larger backdrop of the company’s misfortunes with its aviation business. Most notably, in October 2018 and March 2019, two crashes of the company’s relatively new jet, the 737 MAX 8, killed 346 people. The jets were grounded for many months.

“The institutional failures that led to these twin tragedies are well explained in a book by Peter Robison, ‘Flying Blind’. Robison covered Boeing as a reporter during its merger with McDonnell Douglas a quarter of a century ago and described how countless trends since then—stock buybacks, a focus on profits over research and development, importing leadership from McDonnell Douglas, moving away from engineers in key positions to MBAs, and much more led to Boeing’s downfall….”
(“The surprise is not that Boeing lost commercial crew
but that it finished at all
“, Eric Berger, (May 6, 2024)) [emphasis mine]

Peter Robison’s assessment could be spot-on accurate and fact-based, or not. I don’t know.

I do know that a panel blew off a Boeing 737 MAX 9 on January 5 of this year.

By what feels like a miracle, nobody died.

Nobody flying a Boeing 737, that is.

Popped Panel, Dead Whistleblowers: Embarrassing

Pieter Claesz's 'Vanitas Still Life.' (1630)Again, nobody died when Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 popped a panel.

On the other hand, two of 12, or maybe 10, Boeing ‘whistleblowers’ stopped living rather abruptly this year: one by an alleged self-inflicted wound, another from a fast-moving staph/pneumonia infection.

That seems like a high death rate for such a small group: but that’s just my impression. I’ve also been impressed by the low profile those two deaths have had in American news.

Is Boeing in big trouble? World’s largest aerospace firm faces 10 more whistleblowers after sudden death of two
Shweta Kukreti, Hindustan Times (May 5, 2024)

“After death of Joshua Dean & John Barnett, their lawyers are concerned about the possibility that around 10 more Boeing whistleblowers may suffer the same fate….

“…The sudden demise of 45-year-old Dean was announced on May 30, less than two months after Barnett’s. While Dean worked for Spirit AeroSystems, a major sub contractor in the manufacturing of 737 Max airliners, Barnett was employed as production-quality manager of 787 Boeing.

“…Barnett, according to police, died from apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on March 9. He was found dead in the South Carolina hotel’s hotel parking lot after he failed to show up for the second part of his testimony for a bombshell lawsuit against the Boeing….”
[emphasis mine]

Second whistleblower linked to Boeing dies after brief illness
Eyewitness News, ABC7 (May 4, 2024) “The Associated Press contributed to this report.”

A Kansas man is now the second whistleblower linked to Boeing to die in the last two months.

“The family of 45-year-old Joshua Dean says he died April 30.

“He had a staph infection that quickly developed into pneumonia.

Dean, a former quality auditor at Boeing supplier Spirit AeroSystems, was reportedly among the first to sound the alarm about potentially dangerous defects with the 737 Max.

“In March, a former Boeing manager who raised safety questions about the aircraft maker was found dead from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

John Barnett, 62, was a longtime Boeing employee and worked as a quality-control manager before he retired in 2017. In the years after that, he shared his concerns with journalists….”
[emphasis mine]

I take what I see in the news with a grain of salt. And an appreciation for the deadline pressure reporters work with.

Oddly enough, the only article I found, after a quick search, discussing in depth the awkward detail of two whistleblowers dying after becoming irksome was in a Delhi-based newspaper.

I can hardly blame editors on the other side of the planet taking note of a foreign SNAFU.

Maybe American editors are developing a sense of decorum. Maybe election-year hissing and spitting drowns out almost everything else. Or maybe something completely different.

I just don’t know.

Small wonder, I suppose, that NASA video coverage of Monday’s planned Starliner launch focused so much on safety concerns.

I’m forgetting something.

SpaceX Cargo & Crew Dragon. Boeing Starliner. Otto Lilienthal. Apollo 1. The Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters. Embarrassingly dead whistleblowers. Right.

I’d be considerably more concerned about the life expectancy of Boeing Crew Flight Test astronauts, if Boeing didn’t have three main divisions:7

  • Commercial Airplanes
  • Defense, Space & Security
  • Global Services

I can hope that apparent problems in Boeing Commercial Airplanes haven’t leaked into Defense, Space & Security. And that whoever’s in charge of the Defense, Space & Security division realizes that launching a defective spaceship might be bad for business.

Getting Starliner Into Orbit: It’s Complicated

Boeing's infographic: 'How the Starliner gets into orbit'. (2024) via BBC News, used w/o permissionAs if getting passenger service to low Earth orbit wasn’t already complicated.

Although Boeing makes the Starliner spacecraft, it’s a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V that puts Starliner in orbit.

ULA is a Lockheed Martin Space-Boeing Defense, Space & Security joint venture.

Lockheed Martin began with the merger of Lockheed Corporation and Martin Marietta. Martin Marietta got started when American-Marietta Corporation and the Glen L. Martin Company merged.

American-Marietta Corporation — no, that’s as far back as I’ll go. American corporate lineages remind me of those ‘begat’ lists in the Old Testament, and that’s yet again another topic.

The point of those paragraphs is that, although Boeing makes the Starliner spacecraft, and ULA makes the Atlas V launch vehicle; ULA is a Lockheed-Martin-Boeing joint venture.

So Boeing is somewhat involved with both the spacecraft and the launch vehicle.

Lockheed-Martin is also part of the International Launch Services joint venture; along with Energia, and Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center.

I almost forgot. Although the Atlas V second stage, the one with the dubious valve, is a ULA Centaur with an Aerojet Rocketdyne engine — made by American companies — the Atlas V first stage engine is an NPO Energomash RD-180: made in Russia.8

Like I said, complicated.

And with details that might make a conspiracy theory buff giddy.

Spacecraft Cabins: Mostly Starliner

Boeing's infographic: Starliner design. (2024) via BBC News, used w/o permission
Boeing Starliner: flexible cabin design for crew and cargo.

Boeing's infographic: Starliner exterior features. (2024) via BBC News, used w/o permissionThe only part of the Starliner spacecraft that comes back for another flight is the crew module.

The service module’s solar cells provide power for the crew module while the spacecraft is in orbit. Four Rocketdyne RS-88 engines in the service module would push the command and service modules away from the launch vehicle if something goes wrong on the way up.

And the service module is strictly single-use, along with the Atlas V launch vehicle. Not an ideal situation, but so far nobody’s come up with a fully reusable launch system. Not on this scale.

We have, however, developed a-one-size-fits-all-docking system. Several, actually, and that’s something I’ll leave for another day.9

One more thing.

I’d wondered about “Starliner” being the name of Boeing’s spacecraft.

The L-1649 Starliner was Lockheed’s last model in their Constellation line of airliners, so Boeing’s “Starliner” name seemed like a possible trademark issue.

But since Boeing and Lockheed’s current iteration are cooperating with this launch service, it’s probably an issue that isn’t. And in any case, it wouldn’t be my problem.

That was Then —

Smithsonian Institution/Eric Long's photo: 'View of the interior of Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia'. (2007) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission
Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. (2013)

The Apollo 11 command module had a lot of switches, readouts, and — left-center in this photo — translation and attitude controls. Keep this photo in mind when reading about “traditional hand controls and switches”, below.

For a better, or at any rate different, look inside the Apollo 11 command module, I recommend the Smithsonian’s online display.

Parts of it, like the ‘orbit, pan, zoom’ interactive model, may take time to load. And, for me, wouldn’t do anything except ‘orbit’. Cool, though.

— This is (Mostly) Now

NASA/Robert Markowitz's photo: 'A peek inside Boeing's new spaceship: Tablets, LED lights and minimal controls'. (2013) via Taylor Soper/GeekWire, used w/o permission
Boeing’s Starliner: LED lighting and tablet tech. (2013)
NASA photo: 'NASA astronauts Bob Hines and Kjell Lindgren greet Rosie the Rocketeer inside the Boeing Starliner spacecraft shortly after opening its hatch.' (May 21, 2022) via Taylor Soper/GeekWire, used w/o permission
Bob Hines and Kjell Lindgren (left) and “Rosie the Rocketeer” in Boeing’s Starliner. (2022)

CSM, docked with the Skylab space station in Earth orbit. Photo by Astronaut Gerald P. Carr, Skylab 4 commander, during the final Skylab extravehicular activity EVA. (February 3, 1974)The outside of Boeing’s Starliner looks like the old Apollo command module. And the new Lockheed Martin Orion.

The inside looks a lot like the SpaceX Dragon to me. Bear in mind that I haven’t seen all that many photos or videos taken inside either.

I suspect part of the explanation is that the Apollo command module was designed in the 1960s, while both Dragon and Starliner are 21st century spacecraft.

I’d planned on doing a compare & contrast section about Boeing Starliner, SpaceX Crew Dragon, and the Apollo CSM. Then I realized how much work that would be, and decided on doing a little copy-and-paste instead; from 2024, 2022, and 2013.

Boeing is launching astronauts into space in its Starliner capsule. Here’s what to know
Marcia Dunn, Associated Press; PBS Newshour (May 4, 2024)

“…Starliner vs. Dragon

“Both companies’ capsules are designed to be autonomous and reusable. This Starliner is the same one that made the first test flight in 2019. … Starliner has traditional hand controls and switches alongside touchscreens and, according to the astronauts, is more like NASA’s Orion capsules for moon missions….”

Space Station Crew Opens Boeing Starliner Hatch, Greet ‘Rosie the Rocketeer’
NASA/Boeing/John Proferes, (May 22, 2022)

“…Rosie the Rocketeer, Boeing’s anthropometric test device, … provided hundreds of data points about what astronauts will experience during flight….”

A peek inside Boeing’s new spaceship: Tablets, LED lights and minimal controls
Taylor Soper, GeekWire (July 22, 2013)

“From the outside, Boeing’s new spacecraft mimics the Apollo-era capsules from back in the day. The interior, however, is all about the future….

…[the Starliner cabin] features tablet technology and the same blue LED lighting found in Boeing’s newer commercial aircraft like the Dreamliner.

“‘It’s an upgrade,’ said NASA astronauts [!] Serena Aunon in the video below. ‘It’s an American vehicle — of course it’s an upgrade.’…”

I don’t know where Starliner’s “traditional hand controls and switches” are. Maybe on the wall that’s behind the camera in that 2022 photo.

Speaking of which, calling “Rosie the Rocketeer” an “anthropometric test device” sounds a lot cooler than “crash test dummy”.10 There’s a whole set of subjects there, including the history of simulators. But again: that’s for another time.

Wrapping up this week’s post, I’ll given an educated guess about why Boeing apparently got used to operating in a cost-plus environment.

And why it almost made sense.

A Little History: Boeing, the Great Depression, Good Times —

(Ambrosia’s “Holdin’ on to Yesterday” (1975) came to mind while writing this.)

Charles Forbell's 'Club Life in America: the Stockbrokers' Cartoon from Judge Magazine. (November 1929)William E. Boeing’s Pacific Aero Products Company got started in 1916.

Like pretty much everything else, it’s complicated: but by 1931, the Boeing Airplane Company had both survived the Great Depression and become a major aircraft manufacturer.

That’s an impressive achievement.

Periodization, the way historians divvy up humanity’s story into manageable chunks: is still another topic. I’ve talked about it before.

These days, we call the years from 1939 to 1945 World War II.

Then came the Post-World War II Era. A few centuries from now we’ll probably have new divisions and labels. We already do, actually.

ABC Television's photo: the fictionaly Cleaver family, the television program 'Leave it to Beaver'. Left, Hugh Beaumont (Ward); center left, Tony Dow (Wally); center right, Barbara Billingsley (June); right, Jerry Mathers (Theodore AKA 'Beaver'). (January 8, 1960)I was born during the Truman administration, so I remember “the good old days”. I don’t yearn for them — my memory’s too good — but I can understand why they’ve acquired a rosy hue.

The fictional Cleaver family, in “Leave it to Beaver”, was just that: fictional.

But from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s, a remarkable number of folks — not just Americans — were enjoying a measure of prosperity.

One of the monikers for that era is the “Golden Age of Capitalism”, and it’s been blamed on quite a few things.11

While those good times lasted, staying on a tight budget wasn’t a high priority for many: including, apparently, the United States government.

Between economic good times, and high-pressure situations we call the Cold War and Space Race, I can see how giving Boeing and others money until their jobs got done might seem reasonable.

As for Boeing executives apparently not noticing that we’re no longer the 1970s, I suspect that corporate habits are as hard to break as personal habits. And that the same goes for assumptions about circumstances and rules we live with.

— And the Skunk Works

NASA photo: 'SR-71A successfully completed its first cold flow flight as part of the NASA/Rocketdyne/Lockheed Martin Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE) at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, California'. (March 4, 1998)
Skunk Works at work: Linear Aerospike SR-71 Experiment (LASRE). (1998)

Economic and environmental determinism are both debatable and debated as being more than ideas that look good on paper.

I don’t think either is a good explanation for how the same circumstances resulted in both Boeing’s current embarrassments and the Skunk Works.12

Maybe someday I’ll talk more about Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. But not today.

Partly because it’s slightly off-topic, partly because I wasn’t finding much specific information about the Skunk Works. That’s understandable, considering the sort of work they do. And how they do it.

So I’ll repeat what’s basically scuttlebutt from trade magazines: back when I had access to such things.

Somehow — there’s more than one story about how the Skunk Works began — the folks in charge at Lockheed decided that they should let a few really good engineers do their jobs.

The idea was that a Lockheed client would define what they wanted: specifically, in detail. Then, with a defined goal, conditions, and budget, the engineers would get to work.

And deliver the product, as specified. Even if the client, halfway through, decided that what they really wanted was faster, shorter, heavier, or whatever.

That, and focusing more on results than on composing memos and organizing staff meetings, was and apparently still is a radical departure from business as usual.

Somehow, I do not miss having failed to experience a successful career in corporate America.

And that’s — you guessed it — even more topics.

Somewhat-related stuff:

1 Mostly launch vehicles and spacecraft:

2 Crew Flight Test delay, a little detail:

3 Fairly recent history, and a work in progress:

4 Remembering the Apollo program:

5 Spaceplanes, and what may have been a missed opportunity:

6 During my lifetime:

7 Focusing on Boeing’s embarrassing year:

8 Launch vehicle technology, mostly:

9 Once and future Starliners 😉 :

10 Spacecraft and an important testing technology:

11 A very quick look at the last half-century or so:

12 Ideas that look good, and stuff that works:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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